Introverts & the Church: Understanding and Ministering to Introverts
By Gabriella le Grange
Have you ever had the feeling that you just do not belong? I hazard a guess that this is the experience of too many people in our churches. The reason for this may be that there are certain expectations of what makes the perfect Christian – and we find ourselves failing miserably to live up to that standard. We tend to think that there is something wrong with us. Or worse, we believe that there is some great sin that we are committing by simply being ourselves. For most of my life I have relentlessly tried to get over my social awkwardness, to almost no avail. This has made me feel broken. That is, until I did the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test a few years ago and discovered that I fall somewhere between being an ‘ISTJ’ and an ‘ISFJ’, with ‘I’ standing for introverted. The most helpful thing about this test is that I have come to understand what it means that I am introverted, and I have come to see that the characteristics which attend being an introvert are part of who I am.
However, it has also led to me asking some tough questions about my suitability for ministry. More than once I have wrestled with the question of whether there really is a place in the church for an introvert like me. After all, Christian life and ministry seems much more geared towards quick-thinking, socially-outgoing extroverts. But, I recently came across a book by Adam McHugh called Introverts in the Church (IVP) that has helped me greatly in understanding what makes someone an introvert and how this can actually benefit the church. My three goals in this two part series about introverts and the church are (1) to describe what makes someone an introvert, (2) to list the implications for how to minister to introverts, and (3) to show how introverts in ministry can be most effective in gospel work. The first two points will be addressed in this first article and the third in the following one.
When people think of introverts, they imagine people who are shy and quiet, but this is not what makes someone introverted, although it may come as a consequence of it. According to McHugh (pp. 34-43) there are three primary characteristics of being an introvert. Firstly, introverts finds their energy source from within and needs solitude to recharge. They find social situations draining, both physically and emotionally, and therefore they need personal time to regain their energy. In my life I find that after a long week of classes, followed by working at a restaurant and ministry commitments, all I want to do is spend my Saturday nights at home with a good movie or book. This is not because I am antisocial, but because I literally feel empty inside and need time to regain my energy.
Secondly, introverts process information internally. This means that they take in smaller amounts of information and prefer to spend some time reflecting on this information before speaking. Extroverts generally learn well through discussion and actively engaging with information while introverts withdraw and mull over it. This applies to questions as well. Introverts need time to process questions and sort through the information in their minds before giving an answer. Watching a debate provides a good example of seeing how an introvert processes information. During the first part of a debate, where a person presents their prepared argument an introvert may thrive, but in the rebuttal stage an introvert may falter and produce only weak arguments or reactions because they have not had enough time to make the connections between what they know and what they are being asked.
Thirdly, when it comes to relationships, interests and activities, introverts prefer depth over breadth. This means that they would rather have a few close relationships in which they can deeply invest, or that they may choose one or two hobbies to put all their energy into. This characteristic is clearly seen in the difference between my brother and me. When planning birthday parties my brother always struggled with who not to invite whereas I struggled with finding enough people to invite. Again, my brother loves to try new things and I sometimes wonder if there is anything that he cannot do. I, on the other hand, have a limited set of skills and interests.
Implications for Ministry to Introverts
With these three traits in mind, we can consider how we might better minister to the introverts in our churches. The most important thing is that we must stop unduly advising introverts to be extroverted. An example of this is how churches tend to emphasize a specific kind of evangelism such as door-to-door or other hit-and-run methods of evangelism. This kind of evangelism is daunting for the introvert, to say the least, as it requires prolonged social interaction among strangers and quick information processing. Therefore, if preachers rebuke their congregation for not being more involved in this kind of evangelism, introverts will tend to take it personally and equate their reluctance to join the weekly evangelism team as sinfulness.
Instead, ministers should be encouraging the congregation to use their strengths. Since introverts prefer deep relationships they would do well being part of, or leading, a small Bible study group or one-on-one discipleship. They should be encouraged to show hospitality and be regular recipients of the church’s own. For the introvert evangelism and discipleship take place best across the kitchen table. We should also find out what activities and pastimes the introverts in our churches enjoy and help them find ways to use these for the building up of God’s people and spreading the gospel.
Another way to help the introverts in your church is to give them opportunities for reflection. When Christians gather together it is usually busy, and programmes are packed with information. Service leaders should include time for personal reflection within the worship service. I do not mean the awkward 30 seconds that the worship leader gives while the band gets ready, but a more significant moment for congregants to pray and meditate on the word of God which they have just heard, or will hear. In Bible studies it is often the extroverts who take over because they process information more quickly, and so the introverts in the group tend to sit back and not contribute. Factor this in and occasionally insist on a minute of reflection before letting the group answer, or send out the passage and a few questions before the study so that the introverts have time to prepare something to contribute.
Typically, as an introvert I have a love/hate relationship with church camps. It is hard not to like going away for a weekend and spending time together in fellowship and in God’s word, but at the same time it is a socially draining experience. However, two years ago I went on a youth camp and included in the programme was an “introvert time”. This was just an hour set aside each day after lunch where there was to be silence around the campsite so that anyone who wanted to could go to their tents and have a nap or read a book. I found this quiet time refreshing and it gave me energy to get through the rest of the day. It meant that I was less grumpy and tired come evening. This was a simple idea but one that made me feel like my personality was considered. My hope for this article is that you will be reminded that people are different. By us making small changes to our thinking and practice, we can show all people that they are welcome in our Christian community, just as they are.
Gabriella le Grange is an introverted Christian. She is an honours graduate of GWC and is currently studying towards the Higher Certificate in Theology (Children’s Ministry). Gabby has a passion for teaching the Bible and enjoys serving in the children and youth ministries of her local church.